European Court Takes Up Crosses As Jewelry

Two British women believe they have the right to wear a cross in the workplace. Both were fired after refusing to remove the necklaces. Their employers state the jewelry does not comply with uniform policy, and that wearing a cross is not a requirement of Christians. Lucy Kellaway, a columnist for the Financial Times in London, talks to Renee Montagne about the case.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Britons are struggling with the issue of faith in the workplace. Two British women, one an airline employee and the other, a nurse, were suspended or barred from doing their jobs because they wore crucifixes at work. Now the two are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

To find out how this debate is playing out in the UK, we called Lucy Kellaway, she's a columnist for the Financial Times. And she joined us from London.

Lucy, good to talk to you again.

LUCY KELLAWAY: Hello.

MONTAGNE: In the U.S., wearing a cross on the end of a chain or a crucifix or any symbol of religious belief is rather common. So what was, or what is, the logic of the employers, in this case, British Airways and the National Health Service and now the government, which backs them, in deciding that people cannot display a tiny crucifix on a chain at work?

KELLAWAY: Well, it's against the uniform policy. The uniform policy, in both cases, said no visible jewelry, and a crucifix is a piece of visible jewelry. And they were told they couldn't wear it. They both replied that this was part of their religious faith, and so in preventing them from wearing it, they were being prevented fm practicing their religion.

What then happened is complicated because the argument is then made, quite reasonably, that if you're a Christian you don't have to wear a crucifix. That's a matter of personal choice. It's not as if you're a Muslim, in which case you do need to wear the scarf or if you're a Sikh you need to wear the turban. So British Airways argued that it was perfectly voluntary whether or not you wore the cross, but the uniform wasn't voluntary and if you're a member of staff you needed to follow it.

MONTAGNE: But in general, do employees there in the UK not wear crosses or other indications of their faith at work?

KELLAWAY: I think it's much less common than in the U.S. And what you also have is lots of people, sort of groovy young teenagers; they might wear, sort of, aggressive looking crosses without being religious. They just wear it because they think it's funky. So the simple fact that you're wearing a cross doesn't necessarily mean that you're a sincere Christian.

MONTAGNE: What are the average people saying about this?

KELLAWAY: Um, I think almost everybody sensible is behind these two women. Who can say that any harm has been done, whatsoever, by these women? The UK was originally a Christian country. I think people feel that it's quite outrageous, as a simple practical matter, that they weren't allowed to wear these small inoffensive crucifixes.

MONTAGNE: What if British Airways, though, said it's not about religion, it's still about the jewelry?

KELLAWAY: Well, I think that's what they were saying – that this contravened their policy and therefore, wasn't allowed. But I mean I think the more sensible companies have rules and then police them intelligently. I think that, you know, it's perfectly possible that they could turn a blind eye to someone wearing a small cross that's completely inoffensive and not turn a blind eye if someone comes in with a massive, great bling crucifix that's sort of practically concussing passengers as they hand them their drinks. They could very sensibly say that that was another matter altogether.

MONTAGNE: What happens now? The two women have gone the European Court of Human Rights, is it likely that they'll prevail in that court? And if they were to, what effect might it have on the ruling there in Britain?

KELLAWAY: Well, I mean I don't really know, but I think it's not likely that they will win. At any rate, the British government has weighed in against them, pointing out, again, that the simple fact that being a Christian doesn't require you to wear the crucifix. So, you know, that's quite a clear sway.

MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway is a columnist with the Financial Times, speaking to us from London. Thanks very much.

KELLAWAY: Thank you.

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